WORDS are cheap. They spill out of most of us as readily as water flows from a tap. The value of an individual word is almost nil. The value a word takes on is purely the result of the artfulness of its placement alongside other words.
In this scheme of reckoning, poetry is inherently more valuable than prose, because good prose is easy to write and good poetry isn't. The marketplace doesn't recognize this scale of value. This is why Paul Peroutka, whose words may be among the most valuable on paper today, rarely makes a dime from what he writes.
For most of us, a conversation is easy to hold. We speak at will, often without thinking. For Paul, afflicted with cerebral palsy, saying a single word can take more effort than it takes you or me to spew out an entire paragraph. Writing, too, is a tedious process for Paul. He can't sit down and type out an 800-word essay in 20 or 30 minutes. For him, each word is a process unto itself. Each word, considering the amount of effort it takes Paul to put it on paper, is an individual accomplishment.
Knowing the amount of work it will take to get even one word out, Paul chooses his words more carefully than the rest of us. If anything, this extra care in choosing his words makes Paul's poetry better.
Paul has a following. In March, at the Brewery, a bar on Fleet Street where he spends much of his time, Paul distributed copies of the latest edition of Billfold. This one, his 13th volume of self-published poetry, was dedicated to the folk artists "disappear fear." His first collection, "Your Friend and other books," came out in 1980. Other titles include "The Mind is a Terrible Thing" (January 1982), "Lunch in LA" (November 1988) and 1990's "Heaven's to Betsy."
Lisa Eney, manager of the Brewery, is one of Paul's most ardent fans and supporters. She distributes his work and, in October 1990, attended Paul's first live performance, a work she described as "a mixture of live and video images." A number of Paul's friends, including sportscaster Vince Bagli, participated in the effort which, Lisa says, "Was pretty good for a first try, and showed potential, but could have been a lot better." Practice will lead to more professional performances by Paul and his friends.
Paul hasn't spent his life in seclusion, nor has he shied away from social activities common to a young man in his late 20s. While a student at Loyola College (he graduated in 1986) he became the rugby team's unofficial mascot. As such, he was a fixture at frat parties and went on some pretty wild trips to concerts and out-of-town games. Paul's specially equipped van, which he cannot drive himself, has a reputation as one of the wildest mobile party spots in the Baltimore area. It has taken Paul and his friends to dozens of Grateful Dead concerts, as well as to performances by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger and other popular musicians.
At concerts, Paul is not shy about using his handicapped status to gain backstage access. Indeed, all of the performing artists mentioned above have read and made favorable comments about Paul's poetry. The accolades are well-deserved. Paul writes in many voices. "Bang," a poem in his March Billfold that was written in a consciously female voice, closes with these lines:
I am an actress in a gown with no back
All you are thinking is how to attack
I could be naked and never mean you harm
If you are threatened it's a false alarm
How much are these 35 words worth? Some of us write at a rate of 50 words per minute. Paul spends hours or days writing a 10-line poem. Paul's words are given away, secret gifts shared with a few close friends. He is self-published and has never made an effort to achieve wide distribution. Yes, he'll send you copies of his volumes if you write to him at 1011 Kenilworth Drive, Towson, Md. 21204, and would appreciate it if you enclose return postage; but he's never put a price on his work.
How can he? Can you? I have tried to decide how much Paul's words are worth, in comparison with what I write and the thousands of words I read every day, but I have failed. Some words are simply beyond price. Paul Peroutka's may be among them.
Robin Miller drives a cab in Baltimore.